Although LSU is a slight favorite to defeat Clemson University on the football field Monday night, Clemson enjoys a wide lead in the classroom after a decade of crippling budget cuts to higher education in Louisiana.

Whether it is the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, spending per student, student/teacher ratios, graduation rates or admissions selectivity, Clemson fares better than LSU.

But LSU is older, less expensive, has more students, is more diverse and graduates students with less debt than those who earn degrees at the South Carolina school.

School leaders and students in Baton Rouge are just as passionate as ever about their love for the purple and gold, especially with a football team flirting with the label "best there ever was."

The school's $1.5 billion fundraising campaign is a year ahead of schedule and more than halfway to reaching its 10-year target, according to the LSU Foundation.

"Our graduates compete and they compete successfully," said Thomas Galligan, interim LSU president.

But 16 budget cuts over a decade — state aid was cut by nearly 50% — gets most of the blame for why U.S. News ranks Clemson No. 70 and LSU No. 153, or why The Wall Street Journal puts Clemson at No. 188 and LSU at No. 295.

"The disinvestment was devastating and devastating for a long time," said Mary Werner, who chairs the LSU Board of Supervisors.

Werner said when she arrived on the board three years ago, spending per student was the same as it was in 1991.

"We have lost that growth that we had going," she said.

By contrast, Jim Clements, president of Clemson University, said his school has been the beneficiary of regular funding hikes during his seven years at the helm.

Over the past five years, total state support rose 29%, state appropriations went up 29% and state appropriations per student increased about 10%, according to the school. Clemson finished its own $1 billion fundraising campaign in 2016.

Clements downplays his school's advantage in the academic rankings. "We are all about student success and student outcomes," he said.

At one point, Louisiana dropped from 12th in the nation in spending per student to 42nd.

Annual state aid for Louisiana's flagship school — the lifeblood for any public college — nosedived from $230 million in 2008 to $117 million a decade later, according to figures compiled by the House Fiscal Division.

State general revenue dollars total about $116 million today.

Tuition and other fees, although still low nationally, skyrocketed from $173 million to nearly $400 million during the same 10-year period.

Former President F. King Alexander used to say 80% of revenue came from tuition and fees and 20% from the state, a reversal of the breakdown between state and tuition contributions from previous years.

"I would say that the budget cuts have had a definite impact on the rankings because of the way rankings are calculated," said Galligan.

Both Galligan and Werner noted that rankings can be arbitrary, and hardly tell the whole story.

"You cannot reduce personality and persistence and excellence to a number," he said.

State aid for LSU and other schools has stabilized in the past two years, something of a victory after state aid for colleges statewide dropped from $1.5 billion in 2008-09 to $831 million in 2018.

Werner, Galligan and others are hopeful that things will improve in 2020 amid Louisiana's brighter financial outlook.

But LSU trails Clemson in classroom and other rankings in part because South Carolina has shown a bigger financial commitment to colleges and universities than Louisiana, often because of decisions by the Louisiana Legislature.

Students at LSU attend school in a state that spends $13,091 per student at four-year schools, compared with $20,085 in South Carolina, according to data compiled by the state Board of Regents.

Louisiana ranked 48th in the nation in that category, the State Higher Education Officers Association said last year.

The school whose football team LSU hopes to defeat Monday sits next to the tiny town of Clemson, South Carolina, with about 15,000 residents living on the edge of Lake Hartwell in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Clemson, like LSU, was originally a military school and began admitting women only in 1955. Clemson College became Clemson University in 1964. Both schools use tigers as their sports mascots.

"We wouldn't have a city if it wasn't for the school," said Clemson Mayor J.C. Cook III, 72, a lifelong resident of the town, which is about 10 miles off of Interstate 85.

The Norfolk Southern railroad runs through town, and some fans of the team are taking the train to New Orleans. Others will be able to watch it on giant screens set up Monday night in downtown Clemson, with about 6,000 fans expected for the 7 p.m. kickoff.

Thomas Marshall III, 21, a senior English major at Clemson, said he was prepared to accept a full-ride offer to attend the College of Charleston, also in South Carolina, and had put down a $200 nonrefundable deposit.

Marshall switched to Clemson on national decision day. "I just had a feeling," he said.

"People talk about the Clemson family," Marshall added. "When you truly sit down and really live it, it is something special."

Kayaking, canoeing and hiking are popular student pastimes. 

On game days, a city and school population of 40,000 or so explodes to up to 200,000, including tailgaters.

Those familiar with the area say Clemson has the feel of an agriculture school, with bass fishing at nearby lakes.

But students at LSU, with an area population of 840,000, might cringe at Clemson's rural setting. While LSU students can take advantage of a destination city that is 75 miles away — New Orleans — cities closest to Clemson are Greenville and Anderson, populations around 68,000 and 27,000 respectively.

"We are just in a population that is pretty small," Marshall said.

William Jewel, 22, an LSU senior from New Roads majoring in finance, will watch the game Monday night from a prime seat, a reward for racking up priority points by attending lots of LSU sports events.

Jewel said he is aware of how his school is rated. "There is some merit in those rankings," he said.

But Jewel noted that LSU has its distinctions, including membership in the 1 percent of schools nationally that have the status of land, sea and space grants, which make the universities federally designated research institutions. "We really take that personally as far as a flagship university," he said.

Others said, academic rankings and budget cuts aside, LSU offers intangible qualities.

Clemson has to battle an in-state rival — the University of South Carolina — academically and otherwise, and both consider themselves flagship schools.

LSU faces no such challenge.

"LSU transcends every part of this state because we do reach out to every part of the state," Werner said. 

Galligan, who has worked at schools in New Hampshire, Tennessee and elsewhere, made a similar point.

"We have a unique culture, an incredible spirit," Galligan said. "And part of it is boundless joy and grit at the same time."

Mayor Cook, who has attended Clemson national championship games dating back to 1981, will be in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night.

"I know one thing," he said with a laugh. "The Tigers are going to win."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.